Tag Archives: EU

The tactics of Exit voting


eu graph

For any readers missing the argument for a left exit vote in the coming referendum, here’s one I prepared earlier. In the EU’s rush to take austerity positions since 2008, the budget mechanisms of the EU have been reimagined and the Commission and the ECB have become devices for forcing cuts on the poorer European states. It is a condition of continued membership that budgets are submitted to the EU each year and there they are scrutinised to ensure a continuous process of cuts, privatisation and diminished collective bargaining. In Ireland, Greece and Spain, EU policies are leading to a rapid diminution of union bargaining, and if these are the worst affected, the direction of travel is the same all across the continent.

That said, while I can recognise that the left exit position can have a principled basis, it’s problem if anything is that it is too principled. I have yet to encounter a left exit argument which finds a transmission mechanism between the high socialist hopes of those that I hear espousing exit and the vote. Why, I want friends to explain, will an exit vote improve the balance of forces for the left in Britain?

Here, it seems to me are the main areas where the advocates of a conventional Brexit are tactically ahead of their temporary allies among the exit voters of the far left:

The vote is / the vote isn’t a vote for restricted immigration. If you study the polls carefully, I understand it is possible to construct an argument that the EU exit vote isn’t just about immigration. When people are asked to explain why they are voting for exit, they do not always put immigration as their sole or even necessarily their top priority. Now one (relatively weak) response would be that data on voting intentions often has this character: if you study people’s reasons for UKIP voting, say, often people have complex and conflicting reasons for voting the way they do.

More important, is an understanding of how the national exit vote has been planned. The strategists of the exit vote are aware that: i) they have a big lead among the demographics most likely to vote (i.e. over 65s – see graph at top), ii) there is an equally big stay majority among the groups of people least likely to vote (i.e. under 25s), iii) these majorities have different weight. Because over-65s are much more likely to vote (in general and in this case in particular), exit can win without a popular mobilisation, in fact the more that it polarises people the greater the risk that today’s possibly-non-voting stay voters will be converted into tomorrow’s actual stay voters, iv) therefore anything that feels like racism is counterproductive – the UKIP/migration vote is already primed and ready to vote (of all the parties, UKIP supporters report the greatest interest in the referendum and the greatest intention to vote). Raw anti-migrant politics will only produce a reaction in terms of stay voting by the young.

This, I think, explains the way that the exit argument is positioned both in the national media and locally. There is a constant shuffle backwards and forwards between “immigration” and “other” arguments. One day, we are told that the NHS is dying under the weight of prospective immigrants, the next day that migrants are dragging British workers into poverty. Then as soon as these arguments are put, they are withdrawn and replaced with a blancmange of emptiness which is the characteristic mode of the exit argument. It is the same with the local literature: for every letter you find in which exit is presented in terms that would make a BNP voter smile, there are two fliers in which the No campaign avoids text and slogans and limits itself to stating that there is an Exit position, the politics of which are already assumed.

That said, while you can make an honest argument that Exit politics have been “less horribly anti-migrant” than many on the left predicted; you can’t make a compelling case that any significant part of the exit argument in this referendum has been an argument for redistribution, unionisation or socialism.

Who gets to interpret the meaning of a large Exit vote. Imagine a different context: a Labour government is elected, led by Jeremy Corbyn. The government has widespread popular backing and introduces a programme of nationalisations. Some EU institution (the ECJ? – it would only get involved as a result of a legal process starting in the UK, so we are planing already a two-term Labour government) announces that the EU which has previously allowed such nationalisations as Northern Rock now no longer approves of them. Corbyn calls a referendum to leave the EU in order to deepen his reform plans.

Here, I’m not making the obvious point that “this isn’t how we got here” but a (slightly) subtler one. In a democracy, the people who get to interpret a popular vote are the government of the day. Under a Corbyn government the left decides what a vote means, under a Tory government it’s the Tories who choose. A 55-45 exit vote will be interpreted as a the greatest possible popular affirmation of the politics of the Tory right and UKIP in just the same way that a stay vote will be used to bolster Cameron, Osborne and also (although to a lesser extent) Corbyn.

So, while the left exiters might want to interpret a 55-45 vote in “their” favour as an argument for socialism, that’s not how it will be interpreted by the government, and therefore by Parliament in the making of new legislation, or by the members of the main parties. Let alone by trade unionists, migrant workers or the young. (All three of whom have good reasons to fear an exit vote). In all these different constituencies, the dominant interpretation of an exit vote will be a vote for faster neoliberalism, the greater unpicking of reforms, faster privatisation, etc.

Who is actually voting. I’ve alluded to these points already, but to bring them out more clearly. The exit vote corresponds exactly to the demographic of the people who consistently vote for the worst political options in Britain: above all, it is an age vote. In just the same way that Miliband was ahead among the young and lost in every age group above 40, so it is with the exit vote. It is the vote of the old, of UKIP and the worst Tories. Friends on the left shouldn’t tell themselves that you can mobilise the very people in society who are most opposed to you, on their favoured issue, in circumstances they have been preparing for 30 years, with their government is in power and expect anything good to result.

All of this is relevant not merely to how people should vote but what the effect of a large exit vote will be. We live in a society that has for four decades increasingly criminalised migration, and in which non-EU citizens resident in Britain have been denied the vote in the referendum that will decide their future.

It is already the case that such non-EU migration as the UK still allows overwhelmingly comes as a result of EU law. Both EU and non-EU citizens will find it harder to come to Britain in the event of an exit vote and harder to stay. A large exit vote is going to mean an attack on EU migrants – if the left is seen to have voted for that attack we will be in a weaker position to resist it afterwards.

My own view remains that this is a referendum that the left cannot win and that either option will result in further attacks. Yet in the choice between two bad options, one of them is worse.


Why are the Tories divided over Europe?


The way I see it, Europe is the unfinished business of the 1980s.

By 1990, there was an emerging Thatcherite critique of the EU. The EU was led by a social democrat (Delors) and was seen from Britain as having a corporatist strategy for development. IE if the unions were on board and there was a social compromise, society was at peace and you could get on with building up the European economy as you wanted. As far as the people who led the EU were concerned the condition for avoiding war or civil war was still (as it had been in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s) social compromise. The Thatcherites disagreed with them.

To the Thatcherites, the unions were so weak – in the EU and in Europe – that you no longer to make a deal with them. Corporatism was based on a false calculation of the weakness of the global ruling class and they wanted a period of ideological attack against the “enemy within” (trade unions, overpaid workers, peace campaigners, feminists, LGBT groups…). To put it in its crudest form: the rich were fed up with paying taxes and no longer understood why “their” politicians expected them to pay anything.

There was also a secondary aspect to this with the Thatcherites saying Britain could trade with the US and Japan rather than the EU – but that was the second, weaker part of the argument. More UK businesses had stronger links then (and today) with the EU than the US and this wasn’t a strong enough basis to create a majority for departure. Plans for changing Britain, rather than geography of trade, were key.

By 1990 (when she was toppled) Thatcher herself was sounding more and more like she was in favour of the UK leaving the EU but it didn’t happen, because Thatcher as an administrator was more cautious than she was as an ideologue and she tended not to do the things she said she would do until she was convinced that they were guaranteed not to rebound on her – the Conservative Party in Parliament was more ideologically heterogeneous then than it is now so she did not have a majority to push EU departure through – and the poll tax was coming and her authority was diminishing and Europe was one of the factors that made her seem week.

Since the 1980s the EU has become more important:

i) In the period where Social Democrats were in government in most EU states (c1995-c2008) they pushed legislation through the EU institutions (the working time directive, the equality directive, etc). The EU didn’t stop being a caucus for organising business or capitalism but it’s style looked too social democratic to the Thatcherites. While many on the left have used this period to say the EU was too neo-liberal, as far as the Thatcherites were concerned it wasn’t remotely neo-liberal enough.

ii) the EU’s reform period has placed more of a burden on small businesses for whom the EU personifies the cost of hiring labour in a world of employment tribunals, health and safety laws… There is a burden for big business too, but it is swallowed up by the larger scale on which larger companies operate. Hence the hard brexit supporters you hear on the radio complaining that they can’t recruit apprentices (ie workers paid less than the minimum wage) because of the (fictitious) EU taxes on hairdryers, etc.

iii) Since 2008, the EU has adopted politics of austerity which has effectively ended the period of EU reforms, and since then EU has become a driver of austerity. Obviously this is happening really fastest in Greece because of the debts but it’s happening almost everywhere (except, as it happens, the UK – where we have reached a purely national route to austerity – one reason why the social basis for a left brexit perspective is missing).

iv) Immigration has given the Tory right a populist excuse for what remains an ideological critique of the EU – that it is still too corporatist and this inhibits capital accumulation in the UK. Hence the “anti-migration” opposition to the EU of individuals like Johnson and Goldsmith who are in other ways pro-movement. As far as the Brexiter Tories, as a group, are concerned: while immigration is *not* the basis of the Thatcherite critique it could be the policy that delivers a majority for No. There will be a price to this: if they win Brexit then there will have to be significant anti-migrant moves, as the price for winning they extra 10-20% of votes they need. (We shouldn’t expect the Brexiters to move for the immediate removal of all EU migrants, but neither will they allow them to remain in the UK on equal terms to UK nationals: access to benefits, the NHS, will all come into play).

v) the Euro: Thatcherites hate it, and it has become a totem of the EU’s corporatism (Ironically, of course, in Ireland, Greece, etc it feels like the opposite, an instrument of neoliberalism).

But despite all these changes to the EU, essentially the politics haven’t moved and this is still about the unfinished business of Thatcherism rather than a critique of the EU in the last 30 years.

For the Tory right it’s about closing that period with a final victory – it’s their triumph that follows the tears they had to shed at Thatcher’s funeral.

The reason why Osborne and Cameron and the minority of Tory MPs who go along with them (it’s a very definite minority if you only count backbenchers, ie people whose jobs in the govt aren’t at risk if they call publicly for exit) do not share this belief is that as far as they’re concerned it’s too risky. Brexit would lead to a series of negotiations they couldn’t control with a horribly tight timescale (in theory just 2 years – compare the more than five it has taken to close off trade negotiations with Canada). Brexit could be bad for the City of London, uncertainty usually is. As far as the Thatcherite stayers concerned, they’ve already won in Britain – and, since 2008, in Europe – and they don’t need the extra risk.

The divide is about how much risk is needed, or not, to entrench a Thatcherite hegemony.